John Waters’s 1998 movie Pecker is the coming-of-age story about a young man who can’t stop himself from taking pictures. “Man, everything always looks good through here!” Pecker exclaims, squinting through his viewfinder and throughout most of the film, it does.
Photography is all about looking, and when it was time to invite someone to address the subject of voyeurism for click! photography changes everything, there was no doubt in my mind that Waters was the go-to-guy. His genius, the basis of both his art and celebrity, is his willingness to look head-on at what propriety and “good taste” train us to ignore. Waters’ movies—including Pink Flamingos (1972) and Hairspray (1988)—are all about seeing and seeing through things, most of all, our own hypocrisy when it comes to fessing up what it is we actually want to stare at.
Back in 2004, Waters and I worked together on a retrospective of his art work that was organized by the New Museum, and we’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about his interests in and obsessions with photographic images. It makes sense that as a filmmaker, artist, and an all-around American original, Waters likes to look and to be seen. As he said in a 1986 appearance on David Letterman’s show (cue up to 1:26 minutes), “Life is nothing if you’re not obsessed.” And if you keep watching the clip from that show, you’ll see and hear John go on to talk about his fascination with sleazy tabloid photography and journalism.
In the world according to John Waters—who over the years has been called the “King of Kink,” “Sultan of Sleeze,” “Pope of Trash,” “Prince of Puke,”—we’re all voyeurs. From his joyous and irreverent perspective, “serious” photographers like Ansel Adams, who spent a lifetime peeping at nature through a camera lens, is just as culpable as the rest of us. The power of photography, the way Waters sees it, is that it gives us permission to look, and that what we choose to look at reveals a lot about who we really are.